Many residents of Dolton share a similar story.
Decades ago, thousands of Black Chicagoans moved to the village south of Chicago for a quiet suburban life.
But the steel industry left the area, and the good-paying blue-collar jobs vanished. The community of about 21,000 people grew more impoverished by the year.
Disinvestment, abandoned buildings, rising crime — these are top-of-mind issues for dozens of voters who spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times about the November election now just weeks away.
And they share a complaint with other communities across the Chicago area: Politicians just don’t seem to care about Dolton until election time. And even then, they don’t stop by to face the voters.
Residents have their own theories on why they feel that elected officials ignore them.
“Maybe they do it because people don’t vote that much in the community,” said Sam Jenkins, who’s been cutting hair at Fadz 4 Dayz in Dolton for eight years.
Jenkins praised Dolton Mayor Tiffany Henyard for being visible in the community. The 43-year-old barber said he just wishes other politicians were visible, too.
“I’m not saying they do something crazy. But even if it’s just stopping in. If J.B. did something like that, that would make me more willing to vote” for him, Jenkins said, referring to the Democratic governor.
Another barber at Fadz, Jordan Murray, 31, agreed. He said he’s impressed by one politician, Anthony Williams, an activist pastor in Dolton who visited the barber shop during an unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate this year.
Williams has called on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to use the state’s public health crisis law to take measures against gun violence, but the Republican is not running in the upcoming election.
“I feel like he’s been more active than anybody I’ve ever seen in the community,” Murray said.
Or maybe politicians think they don’t have to show up in a town that already has their vote — or is unlikely to give it to them.
Dolton is reliably Democratic. Over 90% of voters chose Democrat Joe Biden for president in the 2020 election.
Almost all of the dozens of voters interviewed for this report said they’d vote to reelect Pritzker over Republican challenger Darren Bailey, a state senator from southern Illinois.
Many said they were turned off by the downstate farmer’s opposition to abortion.
“No, no, no. [Bailey] needs to go back. Stay a farmer,” Cheryl Hill said.
Hill, 62, shared her concerns with the Sun-Times outside a food pantry, the Free-N-Deed Market, near what used to be considered the village’s downtown.
Now vacant lots and abandoned store fronts dot the area.
Hill is most concerned with corruption and Dolton’s reputation for ineffective village government and mismanagement. She called Dolton a “nongovernmental community” mired in corruption. Politicians, “they’re good at words — they’re not good at doing anything,” she said.
Dolton’s new mayor has been accused of hiring unfit employees and bypassing the village council. The village board forced a recall vote on the mayor earlier this year, but Henyard survived it. The Daily Southtown described the situation as a “near-total breakdown of municipal government.”
Crime, homelessness and inflation were also on the minds of some visiting the pantry.
Taressia Summage, 68, said she doesn’t think much about politics but will back Pritzker for reelection.
“He seems to be doing OK,” she said.
She said she tries to avoid the preelection “bickering” among candidates. “I don’t try to waste energy over something I can’t control. My control is when I go to the polls,” said Summage, who moved to Dolton from Chicago’s West Side in 1982.
A retired bank employee, Summage said she would like politicians to focus attention on senior citizens and people with disabilities.
“Especially seniors, we don’t get anything,” said Summage, pointing to the food pantry that some seniors rely on.
Michelle Channell, a volunteer at the food pantry, said she wants politicians to focus on homelessness and mental illness.
“They need to really get down to the bottom of it,” said Channell, 56. “Help people get off the streets and have more programs to help people.”
‘Everybody falls on hard times’
While the Sun-Times is finding complaints of absentee politicians commonplace this election season, Dolton residents said their community needs elected officials’ attention and help more than most places.
Nicole Scott founded Free-N-Deed Market a year ago. The food pantry helps feed families and connects them with services and education.
“This is just a launching pad to get them to where they need to be,” said Scott, 50. “Everybody falls on hard times. I myself did. This is how the passion to do this came about. Because even with education I had to go to a food pantry.”
About 22% of Dolton residents live in poverty, according to the 2020 Census, higher than Chicago’s rate of 17%. The average yearly income in Dolton is $22,135, below Chicago’s $39,000.
Still, Dolton and the south suburbs miss out on many state resources that go to Chicago, Scott said.
“With gentrification, a lot of families that need supportive services that were in Chicago are now being pushed to the south suburbs. … We need to have services in the Southland that either match Chicago or more.”
Although residents complain about not seeing Pritzker in person, the governor opened a campaign office across the street from the barber shop and food pantry.
The office is proof that Pritzker has a presence in the community, said Pritzker’s office administrator, David Peterson.
“You see this [office] in a low-income area. … I think J.B. has been very intentional in making sure his presence is in areas that have been typically forgotten about,” said Peterson, 41.
‘I’m going to move the f— out of Dolton’
While some residents said they wish politicians would come to Dolton, others say they are thinking of leaving.
At the nearby Village Cafe, Shonaugh Malcolm scrolled through a community safety app on her phone, pointing to a list of crimes.
“I’m going to be honest, I’m going to move the f— out of Dolton,” said Malcolm, 38.
Malcolm moved to Dolton at age 11 from 87th and Honore in Chicago. Like some others the Sun-Times spoke to, she said she moved to Dolton for a better life.
“Out here was so beautiful. The leaves were changing colors. It was a mix of both races. It was nice, quiet,” she said.
But that diversity eventually disappeared.
In 1990, shortly before Malcolm’s family moved to Dolton, the suburb was 58.5% white, 38.1% Black, 4.5% Hispanic and 1.1% Asian, according to Census figures. But today, it’s 92.1% Black and 4.3% white, 1.1% Hispanic and 0.2% Asian, according to the 2020 Census.
And as the steel mill jobs and other employment options vanished, so did the better life Malcolm and others sought.
The crime and corruption have become too much for her. Malcolm said she is staying while she takes care of her mother.
“My momma gets up every day for work, and she’s scared to get to her car,” she said.
Homicides have been increasing in Dolton for years. Last year was the deadliest, with 13 murders, since the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office began sharing public data in 2015. The village has seen nine murders this year.
Sharon Curtis sat on the stoop of her home on Princeton Avenue and lamented: “I’ve got to move.”
Weeks earlier, gunmen down the street opened fire, and a bullet went through Curtis’ upstairs window, where her grandchild was. No one in her home was hurt.
Curtis said a neighbor mistakenly thinks she’s the problem and has threatened to call the police on her.
“I can’t do nothing to make them stop,” said Curtis, 65.
She’s lived in Dolton for 16 years since moving from Chicago.
“It was real quiet. The block looked real nice,” she said, saying the town has changed “for the worse.”
“It was all right until last year,” she said, blaming a shift in population from more homeowners to more renters.
‘I wish they would invest money’
At the Village Cafe, Malcolm complained that politicians aren’t doing anything to change the culture of violence or actually invest in the community.
“It’s like a ghost town,” she said.
The new mayor has tried providing more outlets for children, including an ice skating rink and basketball court.
“That’s cool,” Malcolm said. “But what about all these abandoned buildings?”
Battling the disinvestment is an uphill battle, according to Mayra Aldape, owner of Olivia’s Family Restaurant on Sibley Boulevard.
“Do you see the buildings on Sibley? Those are horrible. If you see abandoned buildings on the block, who’s going to come to me?” she asked.
An Orland Park resident, Aldape said she was skeptical about taking over the business when it was offered to her two years ago. She was told it was a great opportunity.
“So I come over here and drive down Sibley, and I’m like, ‘Eh, do I really want to?’” she said laughing.
But the look of the community proved a bit deceiving, and she hasn’t had an issue with crime in her two years there.
She said she feels safe here.
“I wish they would invest money in the community, because the community wants that, and they deserve it,” she said.